As Christians, we make much of eternal life—rightly so. By his death on the cross, Christ has atoned for our sins. By his resurrection, he has conquered death.
We now approach this world, with its trials and tribulations, with the knowledge sin is no longer our master. We will one day, because of God’s graciousness, be with the Firstborn from among the dead in His Kingdom. Our bodies will fail, but physical death is but a hollow victory for the enemy.
We preach eternal life from our pulpits often. It is, after all, what we are supposed to do. As I’ve grown older, however, I’ve noticed we preach very little about death. I am not, of course, writing of physical death. The preaching of salvation in Jesus Christ as an escape from the death wrought by Adam’s sin has been proclaimed by his church for 2,000 years.
I am speaking, rather, of the mortification of our bodies—our daily dying to self.
Perhaps we tend to avoid thinking of putting ourselves to death (in spiritual terms) because we, who live here in the comfort and freedom of America—where the poorest are 100 times more wealthy than most people around the globe—rarely want for anything. There are a million little gadgets, items of clothing, nice cars, larger televisions, and bigger homes competing for our attention. We rush from here to there, from there to here, for distracting things are everywhere.
Have we become so accustomed to living this way that we have forgotten we’re actually called to die rather than live?
This death (taking up our cross daily, becoming less, giving up our fleshly desires, and crucifying the old man) is an essential part of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels. We are told to count the costs. We are told to carry the cross. We are told to shun worldly affections in favor of love for Christ. (1)
Paul was especially gifted at expressing the idea of putting the old man to death. He wrote so famously in Galatians 2:20-21 of his crucifixion with Christ. He wrote in Galatians 5:24-28 of nailing his sinful passions to the cross, crucifying them there. In a dozen places, Paul scratched out this hard message—the way to life in Christ is through death to the old man, his old ways, and to the flesh which desires gratification. (2)
And we are told to die to self even when the most basic, hardwired, self-preserving function of our bodies seems to scream, “No! This is not the way!”
But it is.
Within this year’s Holy Week fell the 75th anniversary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s execution. In the year leading up to April 9, 1945, Bonhoeffer—a faithful minister of the gospel in the Confessing Church and a member of the German resistance to Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party—had been stowed away in Tegel Prison, at Gestapo headquarters on Prinz Albrecht Strasse, in Buchenwald, in Regensberg, and, finally, in the Flossenbürg concentration camp.
He, like millions of others, became a victim of the greatest mechanism of horror and mass murder ever devised by humanity. And he knew his death was coming more than a decade before when he elected to return to Germany from the United States and England, despite his friends’ pleas that he not.
Five years after his first run in with the Nazis in 1932, Bonhoeffer wrote:
The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time—death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man at his call. (3)
This was his belief to the end. Though there are conflicting testimonies from the German authorities about Bonhoeffer’s departure from this life, the common thread through them all was a sublime resignation from this world.
Bonhoeffer last spoke with fellow prisoner Sigismund Payne Best, a British intelligence officer who had been in Gestapo custody since 1939. When the camp was liberated just two weeks after the execution, Best reported Bonhoeffer’s final words: “This is for me the end, the beginning of life.”
To the world, to those who are perishing, that may seem paradoxical. To those in Christ, it rings true of the sweet certainty of eternal life and recalls our duty to die daily with him.
Dying to self is not an aspirational goal for the Christian. It is a command with a promise. It was true for Paul. It was true for Bonhoeffer. It is true for us.
“And [Jesus] was saying to them all, ‘If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it.” (4)
1 – See John 3:30, Luke 9: 23-25 and 14:27-33; Matt. 10:37-38 and 22:37-38.
2 – See Romans 6:1-8, 12:1-2, and 13:14; 1 Corinthians 15:31 and 16:19-20; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Ephesians 4:22-24; and Colossians 3:10.
3 – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: McMillan, 1937), 99. The original title of the book was Nachfolge, which is an act of succession or of one thing taking the place of another. In this instance, it is clear Bonhoeffer meant giving up life in the world for dying daily with and for Christ.
4 – Luke 9:23-24.